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The RPG Scrollbars: Breaking The Superhero Curse

Revisiting DC Universe Online

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In this era of a hundred comic book movies a year plus spin-off shows, it’s getting harder and harder to remember that not so long ago trying to take a superhero off the printed page and onto some kind of screen was basically a recipe for failure, mockery, and a way of flying a promising creative career into a great big rock. Hell, even now most superheroes without the word ‘Bat’ in their name are still waiting for someone to even attempt a game, never mind make a good one. For every Batman on NES or Arkham Asylum, there’s an Aquaman or Superman on Nintendo 64.

On PC, it’s always been particularly weird. Especially when you look at which companies have tried and failed over the years to bring us the ultimate superhero RPG. Is there anything out there that comes close? Ignoring Freedom Force, since that’s not an RPG? Well, some! Enough not to have to hold out for a hero, at least.

The turning point of course was City of Heroes (RIP), a game that I’m still incredibly fond of even years after its shutdown. It had its problems, not least the boring randomly-generated levels, but it understood both its genre and the appeal of it and created an MMO like no other at the time. The basic concept of being awesome from Level 1 was anathema to the genre at that point, with City of Heroes allowing you to leap buildings with a single bound, pick your power-set from a range of immediately impressive super abilities, and most importantly, provide a degree of contrast so that you still felt special in a world of special people. The whole world was full of civilian NPCs whose whole job was to go “Wow, you’re awesome!”, both generically, and calling back to specific missions that you’d been on. Having the game remember your last great battle against Dr. Vahzilok or whoever really helped hold the action together.

I won’t say I played City of Heroes constantly. I don’t think it was the kind of game most people did, even with its better than usual update schedule. I always liked knowing it was there though – that at any time I could dip in, beat up some evildoers, and just feel great. I was deeply sad when it shut down, and sadder still that its official follow-up Champions Online (originally intended to be Marvel Universe Online, before Marvel bailed) didn’t pick up the baton very well. I liked it for a month or so back at launch, and some of what it brought to the table – Foxbat, the Nemesis system where you created your own foe who would sometimes appear in the overworld for a rematch, some of the level design, and the far more flexible powers. It never quite had the same raw charm of being the protector of a specific city though, and its conversion to Free To Play wasn’t exactly in its favour. It’s still running, but a glance at its main page shows development is pretty flat. Lots of sales. Not much news.

This isn’t the first attempt at bringing Champions to the screen though. Back in 1990, Hero Games formed a software company to create a game version. It would have customisable costumes! Episodic stories! Random encounters! Secret identities! A release date in 1992! Unfortunately, it proved too much for a team that had never made a game before, which isn’t too surprising given that far more experienced teams fell before this spandex-clad dream. Several of them.

Bullfrog for instance spent forever talking about a game called The Indestructibles, albeit without actually saying much. This was the same era as Creation, the underwater submarine game that never seemed to get much further than ‘Magic Carpet with a blue filter over the top’, despite endless diaries in PC Gamer. Indestructibles (originally MIST – My Incredible Superhero Team) was going to be an open-world action game full of collapsing buildings and throwing cars at things, and generally doing destruction that was far beyond what the technology of the time was probably capable of. Later in the 90s, Microprose attempted to throw its hat in the ring with Guardians: Agents Of Justice, which was planned to be X-Com with superheroes. Years later, Infogrames tried a slower, more Diablo styled take with Hero-X, which actually did come out, but nobody noticed because it was bloody awful. Fatman got more hype.

Really, until Freedom Force, the genre felt like a dead-end. If they were official licenses, they were usually shovelware. If they came out, they were probably out of left-field, like the dreadful Quake total conversion X-Men: Ravages Of Apocalypse, or shareware. Heroes: The Tantalizing Trio, anyone? It says a lot for the era that one of the most fondly remembered – and luckily for us, an RPG hybrid! – was the comedy game Superhero League Of Hoboken, a The Tick-style affair where heroes with names like The Crimson Tape and Tropical Oil Man (he fights villains with cholesterol!) fight to save their post-apocalyptic city from the evil Dr. Entropy. It was a fun game. Pretty silly, and the fighting got old fast, but it filled the gap pretty well.

In any event, I was in the mood for some pummelling for justice over the weekend, so I decided to redownload DC Universe Online on a whim. I played it back at release, enjoyed it for a month, and then largely forgot about. It didn’t have great luck after that point, going free-to-play at a time when that felt like a defeat instead of the inevitable, and being bounced from Sony to third-party operator ProSiebenSat.1 and back again, but it’s been clicking along pretty nicely over the last couple of years. There’s now 24 episodes continuing on from the end of the base-game, heading out from its initial locations in Gotham (street crime, drug-dealing, etc) and Metropolis (robots, aliens, and the like) to places like Central City and Themyscira, and just about every DC hero and villain you could name showing up for at least a quick cameo, if not actual missions.

If you’ve not played it, I’d say it’s worth a try. It looks a bit plasticky but I’ll take that over the Murderverse of the recent films. The main levelling curve doesn’t bite too much, though the spectre of the cash shop hangs about as heavy as any game that went F2P at this point. There’s a lot of random grinding around and not many players to be seen, unless I’ve just been super unlucky there, but it goes out of its way to make you feel badass whether you’re playing alone or not. Every few missions throws you up against a big-name hero or villain, often with your own side lending support, with group content joined by solo missions and duo missions (for two, in case it wasn’t obvious). Also of interest is that just a couple of days ago the co-founder of Cryptic/co-creator of City of Heroes moved to Daybreak Austin – the DC Universe Online studio. How much that will bleed into the game remains to be seen of course.

For now though, it’s fun to play, though far more limited in terms of character creation than City of Heroes. It doesn’t help that almost all of its costume pieces are locked away in game, making it so much harder to create someone original looking, while committing you to a name with just those pieces. I’d like an ‘alter-ego’ type option that would let you go from being Robin to Nightwing at the appropriate part of your career, or at least something. Being able to share names wouldn’t hurt too, since it turns out that there aren’t that many cool names for heroes and they’re all taken.

Still, my only major problem with it as a raw game is that for all the effort it spends on being approachable – sleek missions, controller support, fast combat (which isn’t as big a deal now as it was, but it still holds up okay), easy traversal with your choice of skill and so on, it’s opaque even by MMO standards about what skills you should be pushing and how it defines the various powers and heroes you can base your style on. While everything also does damage, Fire for instance is classed as a tank power. Electricity? Healing. That’s at least mentioned in the character select screen, but there’s no way of previewing the skill trees or getting a practical idea of what you’ll be able to do with them. Citizens, bow before Vagueman – the man of steel and uncertainty!

There’s some twelve power sets plus weapons, plus Iconic Powers to juggle around. Just picking stuff you think will be cool or match your costume… suffice it to say, not a great tactical idea. I’d also still prefer more solo player content for the simple reason that many heroes choose to work alone, but… well, MMO.

But, does it do its job? I’d say so. It shows its age about as much as City of Heroes did by the end, despite being a far more modern game, but it’s still the best bet for either creating your own superhero, or entering a familiar world. After dropping its deal with Cryptic, Marvel went the other way – Marvel Heroes 2016 is an ARPG where you pick characters from a huge roster and take part in stories inspired by the movies. That’s cool, and as I said last week, I’m okay with that as an approach these days. With superhero stuff though, there’s still something to be said from being in full control. At the very least, if you’re going to look ridiculous in spandex and spikey metal things, it should at least be in a costume you can be proud of. As a game? It seems fine. I’ve not put much time into it, but it feels like a decent attempt to capture the mood of the films in a wider universe, even if that does mean oddities like Maria Hill telling Black Widow that she’s equally equipped to take on Ultron in a fist-fight as the Hulk. I’m pretty sure even the biggest Black Widow fan in the world would call BS on that.

With both of these official games around, not to mention the Arkham series, with the exception of the bits of Arkham Knight spent parking Batman’s car, I think we can call the superhero curse officially broken. It would have been nice if it had been done in the 90s, but at least now both DC and Marvel fans have a satisfying way of playing in their favourite worlds, and there’s even a few indie options worth checking out. Looking for something a little more grounded? I’d say The Secret World is as much a superhero game as anything else, and especially worth checking out now that it’s been rebalanced for smoother levelling and less reliance on those pesky other players.

I still miss City of Heroes though. You never forget your first rooftop.

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